Cold temperatures send mixed message

Cyndy Thompson of Isle of Palms caught this nice largemouth bass fishing on a chilly day with Mike McSwain in a private pond.

When last week's polar vortex made its visit through the Lowcountry, like many fishermen I was curious what effect the sub-freezing temperatures would have on area fish and fishing. And much to my surprise I discovered that temperature drops were a mixed bag depending upon your favorite fishing locations.

While sudden temperature drops can wreak havoc with saltwater species like spotted sea trout, they can actually be a boon for freshwater species. Successive years of cold weather a few years back resulted in DNR asking anglers fishing for trout to practice voluntary catch and release so the population could rebound from the effects of the chilly water. Water temperatures at the Custom House in Charleston Harbor this week dropped from 53 degrees last Sunday to 49 degrees but had climbed a degree Friday.

Steve Arnott, with the Inshore Fisheries Section of the Marine Resources Research Institute, said it's difficult to say at this point what effect the cold will have on trout fishing.

"Two things affect it. How cold it gets and how long it gets cold," Arnott said. The temperatures preceding the polar vortex and the days afterward have been relatively warm and that provides hope, he added.

There's also mortality on the freshwater side but that can be a good thing, according to Scott Lamprecht with the Freshwater Fisheries Section, who oversees lakes Moultrie and Marion.

"It doesn't affect gamefish but it affects some of the forage fish, which produces a boon for all the predators," Lamprecht said. "Catfish this time of year gorge. Stripers gorge. Largemouth bass gorge as do all of the birds that eat fish.

"For the most part we don't look at cold winters affecting the (freshwater) gamefish population. It usually stimulates what we want to see in springtime by creating a vacuum in the forage base. You remove a big portion of the forage base and nature rushes in to fill it. It usually gives the gamefish a leg up in the springtime."

Mike McSwain, a freshwater fishing guide ( who specializes in fishing for bass in small ponds and rivers from a canoe, said the cold weather affects fishermen more than it does the fish.

"The biggest thing I tell people is they (bass) eat every day. You might have to be content with not as much activity, but every really serious fisherman will tell you there are monster fish they pull up. There's a reason they're fat in the winter. They're eating."

McSwain relayed a recent, albeit warm day, when he brought two three-pound largemouth bass to the boat on the same crank bait, one on the front hook and one on the back. The fish had been feeding on shad.

There are a variety of artificials that work well for wintertime largemouth bass fishing. Lamprecht suggests jigging a spoon that imitates dying shad. McSwain said there are diving crank baits that will get down to specific depths where shad may be hovering, but his personal favorite is a lipless rattling crank bait so he can control the depth.

Finding the bait is the key, he said, and that can be accomplished by either watching for activity such as diving or hovering birds or through use of electronics. Bass are going to be near their food source, McSwain said.

"If you see birds flying and coming lower and lower, they're looking at shad. If you see four or five ospreys in a quarter-mile stretch, there's a reason they are there. For the winter fisherman it's even more important to pay attention to those signs," McSwain said.

"Guys who fish tournaments are so good with electronics," he continued. "If you find a pocket of shad with your sonar at 20 feet, at 17 feet, it's not rocket science. You want to get your bait in that depth. Finding the depth where the bait is is a big part of success. Fish aren't as likely to come up 20 feet and move fast and chase bait."

Hopefully last week's cold stretch won't have a negative effect on your favorite type of fishing. The fish won't be moving as fast as they do in warmer waters, but as McSwain said, they don't quit eating.